Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The work of a Michigan artist illustrates just how fragile cities can be.
Fine art is not the most common use of Census data. A well-drawn chart or map, sure, but usually nothing worthy of a museum. But the work of Michigan artist Norwood Viviano is challenging that notion by taking urban population data and translating it into glass. Yes, glass.
25 of Viviano’s crystalline forms are dangling evenly from a ceiling at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, each representing the population trajectory of an American city as far back as 400 years. Designed using 3-D computer modeling, then hand-blown in painstaking proportion with one another, the length of each form corresponds to the time since that city’s founding, the width indicates population density, and changes in color signal a historic shift.
The divergent trajectories of each city hang stark against the white walls, which are plastered with vinyl-cut images that diagram each form with a few key timeline points. The jellyfish-shaped New York City never stops ballooning after 1850, while the thin, even Norfolk, Virginia grows slowly and steadily for centuries, with only a recent decline. In diamond-shaped cities like Detroit and Flint, there is a rise and precipitous fall.
Viviano’s work doesn’t try to explain the historic events that drove these trajectories—it’s up to viewers to bring their own context, he says. But the medium is key.
“Glass is this really nice material to talk about the fragility of something,” he says. “The fact that these objects cannot stand on their own becomes almost a metaphor for the shifting nature of the economy, with the need to plan for the future.”
That taps into why Viviano’s work is so important now. On display from January 30 to July 31, Norwood Viviano—Cities: Departure and Deviation, is one of three water- and sea-level-rise-related exhibitions at the Chrysler this season. Thinking about the geography of the 25 cities, “you realize that 40 percent of the population are on coasts,” says Viviano, “and you realize how infrastructure needs to be modified in response to that.”